A view of the industry through the
eyes of independent and chain retailers.
Simple tips to make a good
by Rich Kizer & Georganne Bender (July 20,
According to the infamous "They" who seem to know
everything, as in "Well, they say there are two definites in
life: death and taxes." "They" are wrong. If you work
with customers, there are three: death, taxes, and the telephone.
And how you work the telephone can either mean money in your pocket
or customers who simply hang up and call one of your competitors.
Then there are the experts who spend millions of dollars each
year studying how people communicate without saying a word. When
face-to-face, we pick up 55% of our cues from body language, 38%
from tone of voice, and just 7% from the actual spoken words. But
over the telephone, those statistics go right out the window. On the
telephone, 86% of a caller's cues come directly from the answering
person's tone of voice, and just 14% are picked up from the words he
or she chooses to use. Over the telephone, callers make an
impression of a business in just four to six seconds – they can
tell exactly which mood the associate answering is in, because it
comes through loud and clear in the associate's tone of voice, and
the associate probably doesn't even realize what he or she is
The perceptions customers take away from a phone call to your
store become their reality. For this piece, we decided to do an
informal survey of our own, so we called 50 craft industry
retailers, suppliers, manufacturers, and service providers just to
see how they answered the telephone. Some did a great job, but far
too many left us wishing we'd called someplace else. We coupled what
we found with what customers have told us they like and dislike
about doing business over the phone. No matter what business you are
in, these guidelines will help make sure your customer service over
the telephone as great is as it is face-to-face.
1. Answer the telephone within three rings.
The telephone in one of the stores we called rang 16 times before
someone answered it. The owner is lucky that we weren't real
customers. Then again, if this is how the telephone is always
answered, we doubt that he cares.
Most telephone answering machines and voice mail systems are
programmed to answer the phone within three rings, making this the
standard acceptable time in which to answer the phone. If you don't
answer within three rings, customers are likely to think that your
business is understaffed, or worse, out of business.
You might be thinking, "Yes, but what do I do if I am alone
and I am waiting on another customer who took the time to come
in?" Good question. Try this: Ask the customer's permission to
answer the phone. Say, "Would you mind if I answered the
telephone?" How the customer responds will tell you what to do
next. If the customer says it's okay, then take the call. You can
ask the caller if she would like to hold for a few moments while you
finish with a customer, or you can offer to call back within a
specified amount of time.
If the customer says no, then let your voice mail take the call.
Your voice mail message must be current, upbeat, and pleasant. It
must also reassure the customer that they will get a call back
within a specified time frame.
A word to the wise about voice mail: Voice mail is a tool to help
you manage your business. If you are one of those people who use
voice mail to duck calls, you are not fooling anyone. We all know
what you're doing, and we don't like it.
And if you have voice mail answer your main line during business
hours, then you'd better be sure that the caller can by-pass the
greeting and the menu options to get to a live person. Too much time
pressing buttons without being connected to where you want to go is
called "Voice Mail Jail" and it leaves customers with a
bad impression of your business.
2. Know what you are going to say before you answer the
Do you have a standard greeting that everyone must use when
answering the telephone? Does everyone know and use it? If you have
associates who answer the phone in their individual offices, then
they need a standardized greeting as well.
Speaking clearly and slowly, you need to greet the caller, give
your name, and ask the caller how you can help. Here's a good
example: "Good afternoon. Thank you for calling Kizer &
Bender Speaking! This is Kathleen. How may I help you?" Or
"This is Kathleen at Kizer & Bender Speaking! How may I
help you today?"
Rich is well known for how he answers the telephone. In fact,
people often call our office just to hear him answer the phone. His
enthusiastically delivered standard greeting is: "It's a great
day at Kizer & Bender Speaking! This is Rich. How may I help
Rich's enthusiasm is important because customers can
"hear" whatever mood he's in. The lesson here is to take a
deep breath – and SMILE – before you answer the phone. Callers
can tell when you are smiling because it changes your voice. If you
are often curt when you answer the phone, then you might want to
hang a mirror near your telephone. The the-phone-is-driving-me-nuts
look on your face will be the visual you need to remind you to
You might also want to do spot checks when you are away from your
business. We had an office assistant once who was wonderful around
us, but not so nice when we were out of the office. We discovered
this by following our own advice. We called several times over a
three-day period and, at best, our assistant was less than helpful,
at worst, she was outright rude. She was also replaced.
Caller ID can be a helpful tool, but it can also get you into
trouble. We were up against a big deadline one morning and the phone
was ringing off the hook. Three times in a row the Caller ID read
"unknown" and each of the three times it was a
telemarketer who hung up on us. The fourth time the phone rang the
Caller ID also read "unknown." Assuming it was another
telemarketer, Georganne didn't answer with her normal enthusiasm.
Big mistake. The call was from a long-time client who fortunately
laughed when George explained why she answered the way she did.
Nowadays we try to forget we even have Caller ID.
3. Place a caller on hold with finesse.
Don't you hate it when you call a company, only to hear
"Thank you for calling. Please hold," and being placed on
hold before you can get a word in edgewise? Your goal should be to
avoid placing callers on hold, but when you have to, always, always,
always ask their permission first. Say, "Good afternoon, thank
you for calling Kizer & Bender Speaking! This is Kathleen. May I
place you on hold for a moment?" Then wait for the caller to
If the caller says yes, then you may place the call on hold, but
you must get back to the caller within 60 seconds. This is important
because 60 seconds feels more like five minutes to the customer on
If the caller says no, ask if you can take a name and telephone
number and call them back within an agreed upon time frame.
There will also be times when you must place a caller on hold to
look for merchandise or to find the answer to a question. You should
give the caller a choice here, too. Say, "This will take a few
minutes. Would you like to hold or would you prefer I take your name
and number and give you a call back?"
Another thing to consider is what the caller is listening to
while on hold. According to Ear Glue, a company specializing in
messages and music on hold, 85% of on-hold callers will wait if
there is a message on-hold; but 70% will hang up if there are no
on-hold messages; and among those who hang up, 34% will not call
back. (Visit http://www.earglue.com
to learn more.)
4. Efficiently connect callers to the right person or
There will be times when you are unable to help the customer and
you will need to connect them to the right person. Notice that we
said "connect" and not "transfer." Customers who
are "transferred" frequently feel like they are being
passed off. They also complain that having to tell their story to
more than one person is just a waste of time. And the word
"connect" just sounds a whole lot friendlier than the word
Say you need to connect the caller with the shipping department.
In this case you would say, "To get the information that will
answer your question, I will need to connect you with the shipping
department. Would that be all right?"
Then make sure that someone is there in the shipping department
to take the call. When the shipping department answers, be sure to
introduce the caller, and explain the reason for the telephone call.
Stay on the line for a moment to be sure that the caller is being
5. How to tell a caller that a person is not available.
It's not enough to tell a caller that a person is not available.
Here the words you choose create a perception in the caller's mind.
Remember that office assistant of ours? She was fond of telling
callers that Georganne was "out getting her monthly dye
job." Who knows what she said about Rich?
When a person is not available, it is perfectly acceptable to
politely say, "She is out of the store/office at the moment.
May I take a message for her?" If the person has voice mail you
can also offer to connect the caller the person's voice mail box.
6. The fine art of taking a message.
This one is easy. When taking a message always ask for the
callers name, telephone number, and reason for the telephone call.
You will also want to include the date and time of day the call came
in. Before ending the call, repeat the caller's name and verify that
you have spelled it correctly. Also repeat the caller's telephone
number to make sure that you have not inadvertently transposed any
Office supply stores have a variety of telephone message books
that you can buy. Ours makes a carbon copy of each message so we
always have a permanent record of each call. This book also helps us
keep track of potential clients.
7. How to politely end the call.
When you sense the conversation is over, repeat what you promised
to do, and ask the caller if there is anything else you can help
them with. Wish them a nice day, thank them for calling, and always
let the caller hang up first. Immediately write down any important
information you'll need to complete the caller's request.
E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org,
and we will send you our "Rate Your Company's Telephone
Skills" quiz. Have everyone in your company take it
individually, then make it the topic of your next staff meeting. You
work hard to make sure every aspect of your customer service is top
drawer, so make sure that telephone etiquette is part of your
ongoing customer service training.
Remember, the way you handle potential customers on the telephone
leaves the door open – or closed – to future business.
CHA Summer Show, Orlando.
A."4th Quarter Calendar: EVERYTHING You Need to Run
In-Store Events that Build Sales!" Mon., July 27, 2:00-3:00 pm.
Business Seminar S103
B. "Retail Rescue: How to Find Opportunity in Tough
Economic Times," Tues., July 28, 12:00-1:00 pm. Business
C. "Stories of Triumph & Success: Meet Successful
Independent Retailers and Learn What They Do Right!" Wed., July
29: 12:00-1:00 pm. Business Seminar S112. Visit www.chashow.org.
(Note: Professional speakers, authors, and consultants,
Rich Kizer & Georganne Bender are nationally recognized experts
on customer diversity, marketing & promotion, and everything
that affects and interacts with consumers in the retail environment.
Each year Kizer & Bender speak to thousands through their
"Retail Adventures in the REAL World™" keynotes and
seminars. Their unique consumer insights are widely featured in the
media, including the ABC National News special report, "How
Stores Hook You." Their book, Champagne Strategies on a Beer
Budget!, has helped thousands of retailers improve their bottom
line, and their "Retail Adventures™" Blog is visited by
tens of thousands of readers each month. In 2004 they were named two
of the "Most Influential People in Retail Today," and
their popular magazine column, "Georganne & Rich on the
Road," won the American Society of Business Publication Editors
(ASBPE) Award of Excellence in 2004 and again in 2006.
You'll find thousands of strategies, tactics, tips. and
techniques to help you grow your business on their Retail Adventures™
They mean it when they say to call if you want to talk about your
store. They know how tough it is right now, and they're happy to
brainstorm ideas with you – they want you to succeed! To read
previous articles by Rich and Georganne, click on the titles in the
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